So! Longer ago than I care to admit, I finished reading The Peripheral, a great new William Gibson novel. Here's what I think about it!
I often think of Kilgore Trout when reading science fiction. One of the maxims Trout lives by is that, among all the types of novelists, science fiction writers have the least need to actually be skilled at writing. The primary virtue of a sci-fi writer is their ideas, and a writer like Trout who comes up with great ideas can still be a "good" sci-fi author, even if their prose isn't up to snuff.
Fortunately, Gibson is quite a bit better at writing than Trout, but I think the fundamental maxim still holds: the most appealing aspect of Gibson's writing has always been the cool, surprising, innovative new things he comes up with. Stylistically, he has shifted a bit over the years. Neuromancer and the rest of the Sprawl novels were very noir-ish. The Blue Ant cycle was written in a more realistic vein, in keeping with the more modern setting of the novels, and allowed a richer glimpse into the interior lives of its characters. The Peripheral is kicking off yet another cycle, with yet another style to go along with it. I'm not yet sure exactly how to characterize it; it's closer to the stripped-down kinetic voice of Neuromancer than the curious, chilly voice of Pattern Recognition, but it's more an evolution of the two forms than a simple return to the first.
Like a lot of sci-fi, many of the characters are mostly there to fulfill a plot purpose. It took me a really long time to get into the book, and I think a large part of that was an almost overwhelming number of secondary characters, who had their own unique names and roles but not much else. Fortunately, the primary protagonists have a lot more going on; I particularly liked Flynne.
The plot is, of course, the main star of the show. When I attended Gibson's bookreading, he mentioned that due to a fear of spoilers, he felt like he could only read from the first couple of chapters. I had assumed that he was referring to some early plot twist, but that isn't really the case. Rather, it's more about recognizing the structure of the book and what exactly is going on. This is one of my favorite modes in speculative fiction, when authors drop you into the middle of a fully-established universe with zero context and expect you to catch up; part of what I love about Anathem and A Song of Ice and Fire is the thrill of discovery as you piece together the big picture without ever getting it delivered to your via exposition. That's kind of what's going on here, and if you're thinking of checking out the book, do yourself a favor and cease reading this post now.
So: The thing that's really cool about The Peripheral is that it has two story lines that take place in two different times, and, in all likelihood, two parallel universes. I'm not 100% clear on the details, but here's the story I tell myself to make it all make sense:
There are two storylines. Flynne's is set in our future; I imagine it being around the year 2050, although no date is ever given. Wilf's is set in Flynne's future; I imagine this being around 2100, as Wilf was not alive during Flynne's lifetime but other, older characters were.
The big conceit of the novel is that a form of time travel is possible. It isn't possible to physically transport your corporeal body back to a previous time, as in movies like The Terminator or Back to the Future. But, it is possible to send energy, particularly in the form of information, back to a previous moment in time. By manifesting as, say, a voice on a telephone wire, or bytes in an email, it is possible to make contact with people in the past and begin to influence the world.
Wither causality? It's always fun to see sci-fi authors take on problems of paradox, and Gibson has a good solution here. In the "real" world, people from the future did not contact people in the past. Therefore, as soon as contact is made, that past is no longer in the same timestream as the present. It essentially spins out into a parallel universe. All of history up to the moment of contact remains the same, but as time continues, histories will increasingly diverge, and it may eventually reach a "present" very different from the one that contacted it.
(I should note here that even the characters in the novel are a bit fuzzy on exactly how this works. There are some references which makes it sound like there are "some servers somewhere," perhaps in China, that basically hold complete copies of the universe, and that they are interacting with these servers rather than the "real" world. It put me in mind of the briefcase in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which contains a synthesized copy of the entire universe. It's a fun, fascinating, recursive idea: one could imagine that, with a sufficiently powerful computer, one could simulate not only the stars in the galaxy but even the neurons in a brain, creating a virtual universe in which people could think and feel. That said, the idea of Flynne being "just" part of a computer seems weird to me, so I like to think that she's in a universe that's "real", and the servers perhaps just help establish the connection rather than hosting it.)
One of the rules laid out in the book is that, after contact is established, the timelines of the universes are bound together. So for every minute that passes in the present, another minute passes in the "past". This keeps you from getting any "Chronicles of Narnia"-style mismatches in time.
That time thing gets really important once the other cool part of the book kicks in. Physical matter cannot be transported. Information can, in both directions: people from the future can listen on endpoints to which people in the past communicate, and over time can even send instructions on how people in the past can build new things that help them more easily share knowledge. This eventually culminates in a sort of heightened "virtual reality" environment: person A from universe 1 straps into a device that captures their thoughts, sends it through the interface into a mechanical/electronic body B in universe 2 which expresses those thoughts in actions, collects sensory input (sound, taste, smell, sight, touch), and passes it back up the interface to universe 1. So, without actually bridging the matter barrier, you can still be virtually physically present in another time in another universe. Really cool!
It also got me thinking more about Anathem. As more and more years pass since reading the book, I'm finding it has an increasing hold on my thinking about reality, and fiction, and causality, and multiple universes. Whenever I see multiple universes like Flynne's and Wilf's, I immediately start attempting to construct a directed acyclic graph between them, and determine how information can flow, and try to determine their relative level of "realness", and whether that realness has any bearing on the worth of individual entities living in each given universe. It's also a real head trip since for much of The Peripheral the characters assume that they're just playing video games. After all, I play a lot of video games. What if my decisions about Morrigan and Leliana and Calpernia were actually affecting another reality somewhere? And, to turn it around, who's to say that we aren't characters in some other universe's video game? What if crises like the Flash Crash and the invasion of the Ukraine and a surge of Somali pirates were the result of some remote gods trying to rack up high scores?
The plot itself is a bit convoluted, engaged in stuff like mistaken identity and hidden motives. Flynne is one of several people hired by rich bored people in the future to play "video games", which actually consist of moving around actual physical objects in the "future". She witnesses a murder; at the time she just thinks it was a messed-up part of the game, but she and her family and friends come under threat as the parties to that murder seek to eliminate them. Even though they're in an alternate past, they could impact the alternate future if they make contact with the authorities and pass along what they know.
Gibson has been on a roll lately with well-developed, intelligent, resourceful female characters, and Flynne holds up great alongside Cayce. Wilf didn't affect me as strongly, but he was still a good and unique character; he's a protagonist, but also a coward and an alcoholic, and in a way the most surprising thing about him was how he never really became a hero, leaving much of the heavy lifting to Flynne, Burton, and Conner. Oh: and Lowbeer, who was probably my #2 favorite character; Gibson has a really nice acknowledgment in his afterword about the help he sought and received while writing her character, and I think it's great that he took the effort to write someone who wasn't in his wheelhouse.
The parallel universe thing was my favorite aspect of the novel, but it's also a very well thought-out traditional dystopic novel. Not in the traditional 70's version of "There was a nuclear war!" or "I dunno, pollution!" He draws a very clear and very explicit line from 2014 through to the future, including the rampant greed, lack of political will, and managed chaos that follows. One aspect which is fairly unique to me, but also seems more realistic than the more traditionally anarchic future (think Mad Max et al) is the idea that, in the end, it's the poor who will suffer the most. There's a massive crash in the planet's environment, population, economy, etc.; but at the end, the wealthiest people are left holding an even larger share than ever before of the rapidly shrinking supply of planetary goods. It's a dark future, a believable future, and one that you desperately want Flynne to avert.
Yup. Good book! It sounds like this will probably be the start of another cycle for Gibson, and I'm already looking forward to the next one. It has a lot of the energy and flat-out awesomeness of Neuromancer, while tempered with the thoughtfulness of his more recent books, and seems like a great sign of more things to come.